A party of off-road driving enthusiasts set out in 13 vehicles on Sunday afternoon to tackle a notorious high-country dirt track before it was closed for the winter. The weather in the deep south was already wintry. Snow and frigid temperatures were forecast but the enthusiasts in the group of 38, which included two children, were confident they could make the journey by nightfall.

Late that night when the snowstorm had arrived and their four-wheel-drive vehicles were mired in 2m snowdrifts on the Waikaia Bush Rd near Otago's boundary with Southland, a rescue mission had to be mounted.

Searchers from the police and the National Rescue Co-ordination Centre were unable to reach them by land and called off the attempt at 1.30am. The stranded people spent the night in the vehicles with the engines running to keep them warm. Next day the storm continued and several attempts to reach them by helicopter were aborted. The Defence Force was called on but even its chopper could not handle the conditions. The people were facing a second night huddled in the vehicles until just before dark, two snowmobiles reached them and they were ferried to safety on Sunday night.

Reading yesterday of their 20-hour ordeal, many might wonder whether it is not time there were financial repercussions for this sort of folly. Rescue services are usually reluctant to criticise those whose poor decisions call them out. Immediately after the emergency, all attention is focused on ensuring those rescued are given warmth, food and any medical attention they may need. Sympathy, not blame, is the prevailing response. But if we are going to learn from these incidents there probably has to be a cost to those who require rescue.


The objection has been that people in need might not call for help, or delay too long, if they knew they would face a bill. But people in fear for their lives have much more pressing concerns. If they are not in fear of their lives, perhaps the expense is unnecessary.

In this case, nature could impose her own penalty. The vehicles were still snowbound on the track yesterday and might remain so until the spring, though chances are the owners will make an attempt to recover them in the next thaw. They made a reckless decision to set out on such a jaunt in the deep south at this time of year. They live in the region and know what its weather can do. They were putting more than their off-road vehicles at risk when they set out. It might be salutary for outdoor adventurers if they lost more than their equipment when they need to be rescued. If they are not routinely charged for a contribution to the cost of the emergency services, they should be.

Nothing should discourage New Zealanders from enjoying being out and about in their wild and remote landscape, but enjoyment is enhanced by respect for the risks the environment can present and personal responsibility for the safety of others. Those who have made a bad decision should be billed for the consequences.